Ernie’s canvas chair occupied the center of a roped off area the size of a boxing ring. He had washed his face five minutes ago, yet a thin sheen of sweat coated it. How was he going to talk about a book he hadn’t read, much less written?
Opposite him sat a man Ernie would not have recognized by sight, but whose voice he knew in a second–Vince Mathers. If he tried to avoid eye contact with the smooth-talking, knowledgeable host of All Things Literary, his eyes locked on the crowd of spectators surrounding them.
A red light flashed. Crew members raised signs asking for silence. Mathers gave his usual, glib intro, then turned to Ernie.
“Welcome, Roland Roberts, author of the soon to be bestselling Werepires. Tell me, Roland, what is a werepire?”
“Just what the name suggests, Vince,” Ernie croaked, “a creature that is both a vampire and a werewolf.”
“How is that possible? I mean, if vampires and werewolves existed, how could an individual be both? A little interspecies dating, perhaps?”
The crowd chuckled appreciatively. “Good one, Vince. I’d prefer for your listeners to find out for themselves by reading Werepires this fall.”
“But that’s so long to wait. Isn’t there anything you can tell us?”
“Only to download the sample chapter. Just search for Werepires and you’ll find it available free for almost any device.”
“While we’re reading your teaser, what are you reading, Roland?”
Ernie spotted his chance. “I don’t read in the same genre I write, Vince. It would be too easy for other authors’ ideas to creep into my work. I’ve just finished a book that I believe is the Great American Novel.”
“You’ve got our attention. What is this masterwork called?”
“Genius Ignored, by an unknown writer named Ernie Selkirk.”
“What’s so special about it?”
“Selkirk has his finger on the pulse of the modern mind. His vision penetrates the hypocrisy of the publishing industry.”
“Sounds fascinating, but does a mind have a pulse?” His raised eyebrows cued the spectators to laugh again. “Who’s the publisher?”
“It’s an independent outfit called Breakout Books.”
“Never heard of it. What else have they put out?”
Ernie swallowed. “This is their first publication.”
“Are there more books coming?”
“Not at this time,” Ernie stammered.
“We’re live from Bookapalooza. My guest is Roland Roberts, author of the forthcoming Werepires, due this fall from Mammoth Books. Our phone lines are open if you have a question for Mr. Roberts.”
“Danny from Brooklyn. I’d like to ask Roberts if that book he recommended is self-published. I have a friend who couldn’t get anyone to buy his manuscript, so he started his own company. Is that what happened here?”
“I guess you could say that,” Ernie admitted.
“It must be a good book for you to recommend it so strongly,” Vince Mathers said. “Most of the self-published stuff I’ve seen has been awful. Why do you think…what was the author’s name?”
“Selkirk, Ernie Selkirk.”
“Why do you think Mr. Selkirk didn’t work through normal channels?”
“Well, Vince, the so-called gate keepers of the traditional publishing industry won’t give an unknown a chance.”
“Oh, come now, Roland. New voices burst on the scene every year.”
Ernie‘s face darkened. “Only if they know someone. It’s impossible to get published if you don’t have connections.”
“Who was your connection?” Vince asked. “According to your publicist, Werepires showed up in the mail at Mammoth Books. The most junior associate editor read it, loved it, and passed it up the line. Several readers later, you were offered a contract. Would you like to amend that story?”
There wasn’t enough powder in a talc mine to hold back Ernie’s sweat. His heartbeat thudded in his ears. “My story is the exception that proves the rule. There are plenty of other books that aren’t given a chance.”
“Let’s get back to the phone lines. Katherine from Bensonhurst, you’re on All Things Literary. Go ahead with your question.”
“I don’t have a question, Vince. Just information to share. I tried to report this at Bookapalooza earlier today and was escorted from the premises for my troubles. The man in front of you is not Roland Roberts.”
Vince grimaced and asked, “Who is he, then, Katherine?”
“My guess is Ernie…Stinker was it? That self-published bird he keeps bragging about?”
Ernie leapt to his feet and scrambled toward the ropes that hemmed him in. Instead of parting, the audience linked arms, trapping him inside. When a burly security guard grabbed him from behind, Ernie didn’t resist. Head lowered, he was led from the floor in disgrace, while dozens of cell phones captured his image, and sent it racing around the globe.
When he was at last led to a cell in the local precinct house, Ernie sighed with relief. He slumped to the floor and lowered his head into his arms. His cellmate sat on a bunk, writing feverishly. After drilling the page with a self satisfied period, he looked up. “Oh, it’s you,” said Roland Roberts.
Despite everything, Ernie had to ask. “Did you give out my books?”
Roland shook his head. “Confiscated. I was caught unloading them onto a table. Something wrong with the badge you gave me.”
“Then this was all for nothing?”
“Not at all. I’ve just written a chapter where Vulpine is incarcerated. He’s been wondering who his cellmate will be–and, how he’ll react to him.” Roberts pointed to a narrow window near the ceiling. “Moonrise is 8:04. I’m curious what time the moonlight will illuminate our cell.”
Ernie pressed himself against the bars. Roberts laughed. “Pure fantasy, my boy.”
“How can you sit there and write?” Ernie moaned. “We’ll be prosecuted!”
“Oh, it’s not as bad as all that. I’ve called Mammoth Books. One of their lawyers will bail us out. I’ll take the blame for everything.”
“What about your career? Won’t this ruin you?” Ernie asked.
“Hah! This will earn the book more publicity. That’s why I’m working so hard on the sequel. Publisher is going to want a quick follow-up.”
“So, how did you get caught?”
“Do you know a woman named Katherine from Bensonhurst?” Ernie asked.
Roland shuddered. “She pursued me all through high school. Thank God you were there in my place.”
“You do realize we’re in jail, don’t you?”
Roberts waved a dismissive hand. “Lawyer will be along. I do have one problem, though.”
“Illegal trespass? False identity? Impersonating a nobody?” Ernie rattled.
“No. I’m running out of paper. Do you have your notebook with you?”
It was then Ernie realized–he wasn’t a writer and never would be. He didn’t carry a notebook. And, he could no more write in a jail cell than play chess while his plane was crashing. Every word of his 947 page novel had been painstakingly wrung from his brain in his soundproof, climate-controlled office. He was glad Genius Ignored had been confiscated. He hoped it was shredded. As soon as he got home, he was going to delete the file from his computer.
“There’s a roll of toilet paper over there.”
Roland’s face lit up. “I won’t use it all, promise. Just enough to jot down this next scene before I lose it.”
Ernie watched his cellmate scribble. It was such a relief to know he wouldn’t be doing it anymore that he dozed off, leaning against the bars.